The Seventh Annual City Tech Science Fiction Symposium on the Archive and SF was held on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022 as a Zoom Webinar. You can read the full program here.
I started organizing these symposia with my colleagues at City Tech after we received the original 160 box donation that became the City Tech Science Fiction Collection. We’ve covered a lot of important topics at each symposium over the past seven years, but there’s still much to examine and discuss.
I’ve been so busy this semester that I didn’t announce the event here on dynamicsubspace.net. In case you missed the event, you can watch all of the sessions in the videos below.
Many thanks again to everyone who participated and contributed to this year’s event!
Opening Jason W. Ellis Justin Vazquez-Poritz
Paper Session 1: Archival Research Jill Belli – Moderator Jessica Aaron – “Preventing Planetary Patriarchy: Subversions of the White Man’s Ideal World in Early SF Pulps” Chris Leslie – “The Republic of (Interstellar) Letters: From the Archives of Asimov and Merril” Gillian Polack – “Story as Archive: How Speculative Fiction Novels Both Preserve and Interpret Cultural Material”
Panel Discussion: A Tale of Two Archives Jason Ellis (City Tech) Matthew Frizzell (Georgia Tech) Kel Karpinski (City Tech) Alison Reynolds (Georgia Tech) Lisa Yaszek (Georgia Tech)
Panel Discussion: Georgia Tech’s Sci Fi Lab: Archival Research, Octavia’s Ancestor’s Project, and Radio Play Lisa Yaszek – Moderator Panelists: Val Barnhart Laurence Copeland Killian Vetter Edeliz Zuleta
Analog Writers Panel and the Analog Emerging Black Voices Award Emily Hockaday – Moderator Kedrick Brown Meghan Hyland Kelsey Hutton Douglas Dluzen Trevor Quachri and Emily Hockaday – Award Presentation
Paper Session 2: Archives in SF Lucas Kwong – Moderator Jacob Adler – “Summit of Knowledge: Archiving the Fantastical” Rhonda Knight – “A Data Thief in the Archive: Reading Sofia Samatar’s ‘An Account of the Land of Witches’” Adam McLain – “‘Only an Echo’: The Memory of the Archive and the Archive of Memory in Lois Lowry’s The Giver“ Kenrick H. Kamiya Yoshida and Ida Yoshinaga – “An Okinawan Speculative Arts Archive”
Paper Session 3: Latinx SF in the Archive Leigh Gold – Moderator Matthew David Goodwin – “The Latinx Multiverse and the Fictional Recovery of Latinx Science Fiction” Dolores González Ortega and Valeria Seminario – “Inside the Latin American Science Fiction Archive: Challenges and Contributions to a Growing Academic Field”
Keynote Jeremy Brett – “Making Space: Science Fiction Archives and the Archival Citizen” Jason Ellis – Introduction and Moderator
The Sixth Annual City Tech Science Fiction Symposium on Access and Science Fiction will be held on Thursday, December 9, 2021 from 9:00am-5:00pm EST (GMT/UTC -5 hours) online via Zoom Webinar.
To participate in this free event, attendees will need to (1) Signup for a free Zoom account here (if you don’t already have one), and (2) Register here to receive access instructions to the Zoom Webinar. Participants may register any time before or during the event!
In addition to the Zoom Webinar Chat and YouTube Live Chat, join the event conversation with the event hashtag #CityTechSF and follow us on Twitter @CityTechSF.
As indicated below in the program, some symposium content is pre-recorded to offer more time for discussion on the day of the event. Pre-recorded content includes author readings and full paper presentations. Some of this content is in production and will be posted soon.
9:00am-9:15am Opening Jason W. Ellis Justin Vazquez-Poritz
9:15am-10:05am Paper Session 1: Access to International SF Jill Belli – Moderator Emrah Atasoy – “Access to SF in Turkey and Turkish SF Abroad” Shanky Chandra – “Chinese Science Fiction: A Literary Genre, A Tool of Teaching Science or A Secret Weapon of China’s Soft Power?” Gillian Polack – “The Problem of Susan Australia, or, The Tyranny of Distance” | Watch Expanded Presentation
10:10am-11:00am Paper Session 2: Access to Science/Fiction/World A. Lavelle Porter – Moderator Chris Leslie – “Reevaluating the Inclusiveness of the Interstellar Republic of Letters” Katherine Buse and Anastasia Klimchynskaya – “Science Fiction and Citizen Science” Aaron Zwintscher – “Star Wars Biomes: Simulacra, Nature, and Passivity in No Dialogue Nature Shows”
11:05am-11:45am Discussion Panel: “Accessing the Feminist Science Fiction Archive, Or, Young Women Read Old Feminist SF” Lisa Yaszek – Moderator Panelists: Josie Benner Olivia Kiklica Jessica Taetle Edeliz Zuleta
11:50am-1:10pm Paper Session 3: Access, Inclusion, and Representation in SF Joy Sanchez-Taylor – Moderator Leigh Gold – “Confronting Language in the Science Fiction Text: Language, Access, and Trauma in Octavia Butler and Ursula K Le Guin” Katherine Pradt – “Shipping Supergirl: Discovering and Defending Lesbian Identity Through a DC Fandom” Sean Scanlan – “Cool Access and Access to Cool: Gibson’s Gun Moll, Dorotea Benedetti” Ida Yoshinaga – “Corporate Employment Practices Towards Greater Diversity of Story Development for SFF Screen Stories”
1:15pm-2:25pm Access, Accessibility, Bodies, and Minds in SF Lucas Kwong – Moderator Jacob Adler – “‘Everything Herein is Fantastic’: Accessibility and Inclusivity in Dungeons & Dragons” Ryan Collis – “Autistic Speculative Imaginings: Accessing and Creating Minor Literatures” Annette Koh – “Urban Planning for Cyborg Cities: Thinking about disabilities and mobilities in sci-fi as an urban planner”
2:30pm-3:55pm Analog Writers Panel and the Analog Emerging Black Voices Award Emily Hockaday – Moderator Panelists Alec Nevala-Lee Marie Vibbert Chelsea Obodoechina Trevor Quachri and Emily Hockaday – Award Presentation
4:00pm-5:00pm Keynote “Writing Ourselves In: Teaching Writing and Science Fiction with Wikipedia” Ximena Gallardo C. and Ann Matsuuchi Wanett Clyde – Introduction and Moderator
Ximena and Ann’s book chapter, “My Books Will Be Read By Millions of People!”: The LaGuardia Community College Octavia E. Butler Wikipedia Project,” that appears in Approaches to Teaching the Works of Octavia Butler, edited by Tarshia Stanley (Modern Language Association, 2019), has been made accessible via the CUNY institutional repository, Academic Works: https://academicworks.cuny.edu/lg_pubs/141/. This book was awarded Idaho State University’s 2021 Teaching Literature Award.
Jacob Adler has worked as the Metadata and Cataloging Librarian at the Bronx Community College Library since 2017. Before that he performed various other cataloging work, most notably at The Paley Center for Media from 2010 to 2016. In addition to his professional work he wrote a fantasy novel for the 2018 National Novel Writing Month contest; he continues to work on the novel and seek to get it published. He is especially interested in early television history, particularly the original 1959-1964 Twilight Zone television series. He is also currently pursuing a master’s degree in Museum Studies, which he is on track to receive in January 2022.
Emrah Atasoy, PhD, serves as a visiting postdoctoral scholar at University of Oxford’s Faculty of English between September 2021 and September 2022 as a recipient of the TUBITAK (The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey) 2219 International Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Grant. His research interests include speculative fiction, futuristic narratives, critical future studies, utopian and dystopian studies, critical dystopia, science fiction, apocalyptic fiction, ecocriticism, posthumanism, Turkish speculative fiction, twentieth-century literature, and comparative literature. He was a visiting scholar at Penn State University under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor in the academic year 2015-16. His work has appeared in journals such as Studies in the Novel (2022, collaborative article with Prof. Dr. Thomas Horan), Utopian Studies, Librosdelacorte.es, Literary Voice, and Methis. Studia Humaniora Estonica. His monograph Epistemological Warfare and Hope in Critical Dystopia has been published by Nobel in 2021. His most recent publications include “Speculative Fiction Studies in Turkey: A Preliminary Survey” (2021), in Utopian Studies, “Dys/utopian Narratives on the Screen: Beyond the Binaries in Children of Men and Lobster” (2021), in The Postworld In-Between Utopia and Dystopia: Intersectional, Feminist, and Non-Binary Approaches in 21st Century Speculative Literature and Culture (2021, Routledge), edited by Tomasz Fisiak and Katarzyna Ostalska, and “Epistemological Warfare(s) in Dystopian Narrative: Zülfü Livaneli’s Son Ada and Anthony Burgess’s The Wanting Seed” in Speculations of War: Essays on Conflict in Science Fiction, Fantasy and Utopian Literature (2021, McFarland), edited by Annette M. Magid. He is a member of both Utopian Studies Society-Europe and the Society for Utopian Studies (SUS). His research at the University of Oxford is supported by TUBITAK BIDEB (The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey) under Grant 2219-International Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Program.
Jill Belli is Associate Professor of English at New York City College of Technology, CUNY, where she happily teaches science fiction and utopian studies often. She’s working on long-standing projects on well-being & happiness in education and writing & revising in dystopian texts. Newer interests include looping as composing practice, tarot and astrology as storytelling and knowing, William Reynolds, and grief. Learn more about Jill and her interdisciplinary research and teaching: jillbelli.org.
Josie Benner is a Biomechanical Engineering Major and Science Fiction Minor at Georgia Tech. She works in Professor Lisa Yaszek’s Sci Fi Lab, with funding from Georgia Tech’s Center for Women, Science, and Technology and the Ivan Allen College for the Liberal Arts.
Shanky Chandra is a Ph.D. scholar from the Centre for Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India, in New Delhi. His research interests include modern and contemporary Chinese Science Fiction. The title of his Ph.D. thesis is “Socio-Political and Cultural Factors in the Making of Chinese Science Fiction Writer Liu Cixin: Understanding The Three-Body Problem.” Chandra took his B.A. (2011) and M.A. (2013) in Chinese language and literature, and M.Phil. (2016) from Jawaharlal Nehru University at New Delhi, India. In 2013, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) awarded the Chinese Government Scholarship to Shanky Chandra for Post Graduate Diploma at Beijing Language & Culture University (Higher level 1 & 2) 2013-2014. Chandra taught Chinese language and literature at St. Stephen’s College (2014-2019), Delhi University. He completed the Advance Mandarin Teacher Training Program from the National Taipei University of Education Chinese Language Education Center, Taipei, Taiwan, in July 2018. Recently, he spent one year at the Department of Modern and Contemporary Chinese Language and Literature at the School of Chinese Language and Literature of Beijing Normal University (BNU) as a senior visiting scholar under the supervision of Prof. Wu Yan (HYI fellowship). He is also a member of the International Forum of Chinese Language Teachers (国际汉语教师微信群) and its official Account e-journal (国际汉语教师500强公众号). Currently, he is a visiting fellow at Harvard Yenching Institute, Harvard University.
Ryan Collis is a second year PhD student in Education at York University in Ontario, Canada who researches the creation of learning spaces for autistic students. He holds degrees in English (BA, Queen’s ‘99), Computer Science (BScH, Queen’s ‘00), Education (BEd, OISE ‘05), and Science and Technology Studies (BScH, York ’19; MA, York ‘20). Ryan has been a high school teacher in the York Region District School Board since 2006 and is a founding member of the editorial board of the Canadian Journal of Autism Equity. Ryan lives with his wife and son in Ajax, Ontario.
Jason W. Ellis is an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY, where he coordinates the City Tech Science Fiction Collection. He coedited The Postnational Fantasy: Postcolonialism, Cosmopolitics and Science Fiction (McFarland, 2011) and a special issue on Star Wars: The Force Awakens of New American Notes Online, and talked with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson about the relationship between SF and society on StarTalk Radio. He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.
Ximena Gallardo C. is a professor of English at LaGuardia Community College-CUNY. She has been a Wikipedia editor since 2012 and a WikiEducation instructor since 2014. Among her current Wikimedia projects are The LaGuardia WikiProject Octavia E. Butler and the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives GLAM initiative, as well as the Wikibooks projects Perspectives in Digital Literacy and Themes in Literature.
Leigh Dara Gold received her doctorate in German Literature in 2011 from New York University. She teaches Introduction to Poetry and English 1121 at New York City College of Technology, and Ancient Literature and Composition at Borough of Manhattan Community College. Her current research interests include science fiction’s role in the classroom, research on Ursula K. Le Guin, and connections between dance, literature, and philosophy.
Emily Hockaday is the managing editor and poetry editor for Asimov’s Science Fiction and Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Her first full-length poetry collection, Naming the Ghost, will be out in November 2022 with Cornerstone Press. You can find her online at www.emilyhockaday.com or @E_Hockaday.
Olivia Kiklica is a Computational Media Major and Science Fiction Fellow at Georgia Tech. She works in Professor Lisa Yaszek’s Sci Fi Lab, with funding from Georgia Tech’s Center for Women, Science, and Technology and the Ivan Allen College for the Liberal Arts.
Anastasia Klimchynskaya’s research brings together literary theory, sociology, and neuroscience to study how storytelling and narrative shape what (we believe) we know about the world. She received her PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Pennsylvania, focusing on the way science fiction emerged as a literary form in the nineteenth century to express a new social and technoscientific paradigm. Her book project extends this work into the twenty-first century, using the two periods as foils for each other to examine how our fictions shape the innovation, use, and understanding of technoscientific advancements – and, in turn, how these advancements shape the very form of the stories we tell.
Lucas Kwong is an assistant professor of English at New York City College of Technology. His scholarship on fantastic fiction, religion, and colonialism has been published in Victorian Literature and Culture, Religion and Literature, and Journal of Narrative Theory. He also serves as the assistant editor for New American Notes Online, an online interdisciplinary scholarly journal, and as editor for City Tech Writer, a journal of student writing. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife.
Chris Leslie (he/him) is a visiting professor at the South China University of Technology whose research investigates the interactions among science, technology, and society. This paper is based on the research for his book From Hyperspace to Hypertext: Masculinity, Globalization, and Their Discontents, which will be published by Palgrave in 2022. Dr. Leslie is chair of the IFIP working group on the history of computing and a creative consultant for Zhejiang Hexin Toy Group in Yunhe, China.
Ann Matsuuchi is an instructional technology librarian and professor at LaGuardia Community College-CUNY. Past writing projects include those that focus on Samuel R. Delany and Wonder Woman, sf tv shows such as Doctor Who, and Asian American comic books. Ann teaches digital literacy, online cultures, and the fundamentals of internet studies. Current projects include one that focuses on Melvin Van Peebles, and a reference guide to Delany’s works.
Alec Nevala-Lee was a 2019 Hugo and Locus Award finalist for Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction (Dey Street Books / HarperCollins), which was named one of the best nonfiction books of the year by The Economist. He is the author of three suspense novels from Penguin, including The Icon Thief, and his work has appeared in such publications as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon, The Daily Beast, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, and two editions of The Year’s Best Science Fiction. His next book, Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller, will be published by HarperCollins on August 2, 2022.
Evelyn Ng is a City Tech Communication Design student with a focus on illustration. She’s designed and illustrated the poster for “The Sixth Annual City Tech Science Fiction Symposium on Access and Science Fiction”. When she isn’t working, she spends her time looking through art publications to elevate her design techniques. See more of her work on Instagram and on her online portfolio.
Chelsea Obodoechina is a graduate student and teaching assistant. In her spare time, she writes short speculative fiction inspired by her academic background in sociology. Her works have been featured in Cast of Wonders, the Unfettered Hexes anthology, and Anathema: Spec from the Margins. She lives in Montreal, Canada with her family.
Gillian Polack, Ph.D. is an Australian speculative fiction writer based in Canberra, Australia. She was the 2020 recipient of the Ditmar (best novel, for her 2019 novel The Year of the Fruit Cake) and the Bertram A. Chandler (lifetime achievement in science fiction) awards. She is an ethnohistorian with a special interest in how story transmits culture, both Medieval and modern. Her current research examines how contemporary speculative fiction novels serve as vectors for cultural transmission. A study of this will be released in 2022 (Story Matrices: Cultural Encoding and Cultural Baggage in the Worlds of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Academic Lunare). Her research at Deakin University furthers this work. Dr Polack’s publications include ten novels, short stories, a monograph (History and Fiction, shortlisted for the William Atheling Jr Award for Criticism or Review) and various works of non-fiction. A list of her books can be found at https://gillianpolack.com/my-books/.
Katherine Pradt is a librarian at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. In addition to supporting academic research and answering citation style questions (and troubleshooting the printers), she works to connect scholars to open-source tools and open access resources. She holds an MFA in addition to her library degree and is writing a novel set in occupied New York during the Revolutionary War.
Trevor Quachri, who took the reins of Analog Science Fiction and Fact as editor in 2012, started off as an editorial assistant in 1999 and worked his way up the ladder at Analog and Asimov’s Science Fiction, under Stanley Schmidt, Sheila Williams, and Gardner Dozois, respectively. On top of that, he’s also been a Broadway stagehand, collected data for museums, and executive produced a science fiction pilot for a basic cable channel. He lives in New Jersey with his fiancée, daughter, and way, way too many comic books.
Joy Sanchez-Taylor is a Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College (CUNY) whose research specialty is intersections between science fiction, fantasy, and critical race theory. Her book Diverse Futures: Science Fiction and Authors of Color (2021) examines the contributions of late twentieth and twenty-first century U.S. and Canadian science fiction authors of color to the genre. Dr. Sanchez-Taylor is currently working on a monograph project on diverse fantasy representations.
Sean Scanlan is Associate Professor of English at New York City College of Technology—CUNY where he specializes in literary technologies and American and global literature. He published “Global Homesickness in William Gibson’s Blue Ant Trilogy,” for the collection The City after 9/11: Literature, Film, Television (2016), and he is the founder and editor of NANO: New American Notes Online.
Jessica Taetle is a Computational Media Major and Science Fiction Fellow at Georgia Tech. She works in Professor Lisa Yaszek’s Sci Fi Lab, with funding from Georgia Tech’s Center for Women, Science, and Technology and the Ivan Allen College for the Liberal Arts.
Justin Vazquez-Poritz is the Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at New York College of Technology, CUNY.
Marie Vibberthas sold over 70 short stories to professional publications such as Analog Science Fiction & Fact, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Nature, Vice’s Motherboard, Lightspeed, Escape Pod, and more. Her works have been translated into Chinese and Vietnamese. Her debut novel, Galactic Hellcats, came out in 2021. Publisher’s Weekly called it “A rip-roaring space heist.” By day she is a computer programmer at Case Western Reserve University.
Lisa Yaszek is Regents’ Professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication, where she explores science fiction as a global language crossing centuries, continents, and cultures. Yaszek’s books include Galactic Suburbia: Recovering Women’s Science Fiction (Ohio State, 2008); Sisters of Tomorrow: The First Women of Science Fiction (Wesleyan 2016); The Future is Female! 25 Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women (Library of America, 2018); and Literary Afrofuturism in the Twenty-FirstCentury (co-edited with Isiah Lavender III, Ohio State, 2020). Her ideas have been featured in The Washington Post, Food and Wine Magazine, and USA Today, and she has been an expert commentator for the BBC4’s Stranger Than Sci Fi, Wired.com’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the AMC miniseries James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction. A past president of the Science Fiction Research Association, Yaszek currently serves as a juror for the John W. Campbell and Eugie Foster Science Fiction Awards.
Ida Yoshinaga is an Assistant Professor of Science Fiction Film at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and her screen-studies research centers on the production relations between creative labor from racial/gender/class minority groups and majority-dominated management, within corporate transmedia. Along with workplace allyship between these two unequal statuses, she studies the global stratification of SFF-genre scriptwriting within the story development process, as well as produces and facilitates the development of cultural screenplays for Indigenous or 4th cinema and TV.the development of cultural screenplays for Indigenous or 4th cinema and TV.
Edeliz Zuleta is a Biomechanical Engineering Major and Science Fiction Minor at Georgia Tech. She works in Professor Lisa Yaszek’s Sci Fi Lab, with funding from Georgia Tech’s Center for Women, Science, and Technology and the Ivan Allen College for the Liberal Arts.
Aaron Zwintscher is an adjunct professor of English at the New York City College of Technology. He is also an ambient musician and noise artist.
An Astounding 90 Years of Analog
Science Fiction and Fact: The Fourth Annual City Tech Science Fiction
Date and Time: December 12, 2019, 9:00AM-6:00PM
Location: New York City College of Technology, 285 Jay
St., A105, Brooklyn, NY
Almost 90 years ago, Analog
Science Fiction and Fact began its storied history as one of the most
important and influential SF magazines with the publication of its first issue under
the title Astounding Stories of Super-Science. During that time, its fabled
editors, award-winning writers, recognized artists, and invested readers played
roles in the development of one of the longest running and renowned SF
magazines, which in turn, influenced the field and adapted to change itself.
The Fourth Annual City Tech
Science Fiction Symposium will celebrate “An Astounding 90 Years of Analog
Science Fiction and Fact.” It will feature talks, readings, and discussion
panels with Analog Science Fiction and
Fact’s current and past editors
and writers, and paper presentations and discussion panels about its extensive
history, its relationship to the SF genre, its connection to fandom, and its
role within the larger SF publishing industry.
We invite proposals for 15-20 minute paper presentations that explore
or strongly relate to Analog
Science Fiction and Fact. Please
send a 250-word abstract with title, brief professional bio, and contact
information to Jason Ellis (email@example.com)
by September 30, 2019. Topics with a connection to Analog Science Fiction and Fact might include but are certainly not limited to:
of the magazine’s editors, writers, and relationship to other SF magazines.
of the magazine to the ongoing development of the SF genre.
themes, and concepts in the magazine.
of identity (culture, ethnicity, race, sex, and gender) in the magazine.
of color in the magazine.
writers in the magazine.
and the magazine.
studies of cover and interior artwork.
and the magazine.
approaches to studying the magazine.
and the Humanities bridged in the magazine.
approaches to teaching SF and/or STEM with the magazine.
This symposium is held in
partnership with Analog Science Fiction and Fact and its publisher Penny
Publications. It is hosted by the School of Arts and Sciences at the New York
City College of Technology, CUNY.
The Annual City Tech Symposium on
Science Fiction is held in celebration of the City Tech Science Fiction
Collection, an archival holding of over 600-linear feet of magazines,
anthologies, novels, and scholarship. It is in the Archives and Special
Collections of the Ursula C. Schwerin Library (Library Building, L543C, New
York City College of Technology, 300 Jay Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201). More
information about the collection and how to access it is available here: https://openlab.citytech.cuny.edu/sciencefictionatcitytech/librarycollection/.
The Third Annual City Tech Science Fiction Symposium was an amazing success! Here are videos from the symposium’s presentations and discussions from Nov. 27, 2018. Watch them all on YouTube via this playlist, or watch them as embedded videos below.
Continental Breakfast and Opening Remarks
Location: Academic Complex A105
Justin Vazquez-Poritz, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, New York City College of Technology
Jason W. Ellis, New York City College of Technology
Session 1: Affect and Experimentation
Location: Academic Complex A105
Moderator: Jason W. Ellis
Leigh Gold, “The Legacy of Frankenstein: Science, Mourning, and the Ethics of Experimentation”
Lucas Kwong, “The Island Of Dr. Moreau, Fantastic Ambivalence, and the Victorian “Science Of Religion”
Robert Lestón, “Between Intervals: A Soundscape for all Us Monsters”
Session 2: Identity and Genre
Location: Academic Complex A105
Moderator: Jill Belli
Anastasia Klimchynskaya, “Frankenstein, Or, the Modern Fantastic: Rationalizing Wonder and the Birth of Science Fiction”
Paul Levinson, “Golem, Frankenstein, and Westworld”
Joy Sanchez-Taylor, “Genetic Engineering and non-Western Modernity in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl”
Session 3: American Culture and Media
Location: Academic Complex A105
Moderator: A. Lavelle Porter
Aaron Barlow, “‘Fraunkensteen’: What’s No Longer Scary Becomes Funny or, How American Popular Culture Appropriates Art and Expands the Commons”
Marleen S. Barr, “Trumppunk Or Science Fiction Resists the Monster Inhabiting the White House”
Sharon Packer, “Jessica Jones (Superhero), Women & Alcohol Use Disorders”
Student Round Table: “Shaping the Future: A Student Roundtable on Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower”
Location: Academic Complex A105
Moderator: A. Lavelle Porter
Panelists: Zawad Ahmed
Frankenstein Panel: Mary Shelley’s Novel’s Influence on Scientists and Technologists
Location: Academic Complex A105
Moderator: Justin Vazquez-Poritz
Heidi Boisvert, Entertainment Technology Department
Robert MacDougall, Social Sciences Department
Ashwin Satyanarayana, Computer Systems Technology Department
Jeremy Seto, Biological Sciences Department
Closing and Tour of the City Tech Science Fiction Collection
Location: City Tech Library L543
Remarks by Jason W. Ellis
Just a reminder that the call for papers deadline is October 31, 2018 for the Third Annual City Tech Science Fiction Symposium. Details are below!
200 Years of Interdisciplinarity Beginning with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: The Third Annual City Tech Symposium on Science Fiction
Date and Time: Tuesday, November 27, 2018. 9:00am-5:00pm
Location: New York City College of Technology, 300 Jay St., Namm N119, Brooklyn, NY
“So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein—more, far more, will I achieve; treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.”
–Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1831 edition)
“Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
–Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), Jurassic Park (1993)
Ian Malcolm’s admonition above is as much a rebuke to the lasting echo of Victor Frankenstein’s ambition to accomplish “more, far more” as it is to park owner John Hammond’s explaining, “Our scientists have done things no one could ever do before.” Films like Jurassic Park and the kind of literature that came to be known as Science Fiction (SF) owe a tremendous debt to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818). In addition to being an (if not the) inaugural work of SF, Mary Shelley builds her cautionary tale around interdisciplinary approaches to science, and she takes this innovation further by applying the humanities to question the nature of being in the world, the effects of science on society, and the ethical responsibilities of scientists. These are only some of Frankenstein’s groundbreaking insights, which as Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove observe in Trillion Year Spree (1986), “is marvellously good and inexhaustible in its interest” (20). The many dimensions of interdisciplinarity in Frankenstein and the SF that followed are the focus of the Third Annual City Tech Science Fiction Symposium.
In this special anniversary year of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, join us for a one-day symposium discussing interdisciplinarity and SF. Continuing conversations began in the earlier symposia, we seek to investigate SF’s power as an extrapolating art form with interdisciplinarity at its core, including interdisciplinarity within STEM fields and the interdisciplinary synergy of STEM and the humanities.
We invite presentations of 15-20 minutes on SF and interdisciplinarity. Papers on or connected to Frankenstein are particularly encouraged. Possible presentation topics include, but are not limited to:
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and interdisciplinarity (focusing on research questions or teaching approaches)
Explorations of interdisciplinary ideas, approaches, and themes in SF (or what disciplinary boundaries does SF bridge)
SF as an interdisciplinary teaching tool (or what SF have you used or want to use in your classes to achieve interdisciplinary outcomes)
Hosted by the School of Arts and Sciences at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY.
The Annual City Tech Symposium on Science Fiction is held in celebration of the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, an archival holding of over 600-linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and scholarship. It is located in the Archives and Special Collections of the Ursula C. Schwerin Library (Library Building, L543C, New York City College of Technology, 300 Jay Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201). More information about the collection and how to access it is available here: https://openlab.citytech.cuny.edu/sciencefictionatcitytech/librarycollection/.
This semester, I have been doing a lot of work with the City Tech Science Fiction Collection that culminated with a City Tech Library window exhibit (see photo above) and the well-attended symposium on Amazing Stories: Inspiration, Learning, and Adventure in Science Fiction.
The library exhibit was a fun project to undertake. I had not installed something like this before, so I had to do a lot of planning and sought support from the School of Arts and Sciences for access to a wide-format printer. Despite the best planning, it still took over four hours to completely dress the window display by myself (with the help of masonry line that I picked up at Lowes). I describe how I created the library exhibit using materials in the City Tech Science Fiction Collection on the Science Fiction at City Tech OpenLab site here.
The symposium was a much larger undertaking, but not one that I lacked experience in. Previously, I organized the academic track of a symposium at Georgia Tech as an undergraduate student, and later, I handled scheduling for the 2009 SFRA Conference in Atlanta, GA (with approximately 100 presenters). I served as the chair of the Symposium on Amazing Stories organizing committee. My colleagues Mary Nilles provided a lot of useful brainstorming early in the process, and Aaron Barlow gave me good advice. Jill Belli handled the important student session planning, which turned out to be the most well-attended panel during the symposium. I organized twelve presentations across three serial sessions, opened the symposium, presented a paper, read a paper for an absent presenter who was ill, presented on the acquisition of the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, and gave a tour of the collection with Keith Muchowski. Besides having this great opportunity to learn from my colleagues and scholars from Columbia, CUNY, York, and Yale, I was thrilled that so many students came to each session, asked questions, and joined the conversation. Also, I learned a lot from the students during the student roundtable during the penultimate panel. The Symposium on Amazing Stories program can be found here, and the symposium wrap-up with photos can be read here.
I delivered this presentation at the James Madison University Pulp Studies Symposium on October 7, 2016. The video above shows my presentation’s images, and the script of my talk is included below.
The paper is about introducing new audiences to old ideas for the benefit of two different City Tech audiences: 1) frame the historical publication context of science fiction short stories for students, and 2) illuminate the deep history of technological ideas for faculty fellows in the NEH-funded “Cultural History of Digital Technology” project.
Engagement, Learning and Inspiration in SF: Use Cases for the City Tech Science Fiction Collection
Jason W. Ellis
In the first issue of Amazing Stories dated April 1926, Hugo Gernsback writes:
By ‘scientifiction’ I mean the Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe type of story—a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision … Not only do these amazing tales make tremendously interesting reading—they are always instructive. (Gernsback 3)
According to Gernsback, the literary genre that would become known as science fiction combines romance, scientific fact, and prophetic vision. The romance engages the reader in an interesting story. The facts instruct the reader in science and technology. The prophetic vision extrapolates from what is known into the not-yet-known and simultaneously inspires readers to realize that vision. I believe that Gernsback’s vision of SF is fundamental to arguments for SF collections at colleges with a pedagogical and community-serving commission like City Tech. Our college occupies several buildings in downtown Brooklyn and serves the educational needs of over 17,000 students. Historically a trade and vocational school, it has over time and by design developed into a senior college of the City University of New York (CUNY) system. Nevertheless, the students it serves and the fields it attempts to prepare them for are primarily focused on STEM career paths. While not all stakeholders recognize the importance that the humanities have to STEM graduates’ success and overall outlook, the administration’s support of the City Tech Science Fiction Collection signals at least one way in which the humanities—in this case via SF—is seen as supportive to the otherwise STEM-focused educational work of the college. In effect, SF and the collection serves as a source for engagement, learning, and inspiration for students who have much to gain from it as a literary genre that reveals the inextricable linkages between STEM and the humanities. While I cannot within the scope of this presentation explore all of these functions of SF, I will restrict myself to discussing how I have used the collection to support my teaching and pedagogical work at City Tech.
Teaching Science Fiction from a Historical Perspective
For students, my SF syllabus takes a historical approach to the genre. Following Brian Aldiss, I point to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the genre’s beginning, because its plot pivots upon on an extrapolation of science and technology. Following this novel, I have students read a chronological progression of short stories that correspond with the movements in the genre: proto-science fiction and SF’s influences, H.G. Wells and his scientific romances, Jules Verne and his Voyages extraordinaires, Hugo Gernsback’s scientifiction and the pulps, John W. Campbell, Jr. and the Golden Age, the New Wave, Feminist SF, Cyberpunk, and contemporary SF. Looking at my current syllabus, which draws on readings from the Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction and a few stories in PDF form that are not in the anthology, over half appear for the first time in magazines held in the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, including: Isaac Asimov’s “Reason,” Astounding Science Fiction, April 1941; Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations,” Astounding Science Fiction August 1954; Robert Heinlein’s “All You Zombies—,“ The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, March 1959; Harlan Ellison’s “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman,” Galaxy Magazine, December 1965; Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction April 1966; James Tiptree, Jr’s “The Women Men Don’t See,” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction December 1973; William Gibson’s “Burning Chrome,” Omni July 1982; and Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds,” Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine Mid-December 1983. In addition to discussing each story in its historical context and its addressing Gernsback’s tripartite definition (along with other definitions, too), I show students photos of the magazines and their contents. I relate how these magazines were a big deal that introduced readers to engaging stories, new science and technology, and inspirational ideas via the haptic and tactile experience of reading printed magazines. Furthermore, the contents of a given magazine add an anthropological context to the magazines via editorials, letters, fandom, and advertising. Finally, the magazines help situate the readings for students, because they empower me to point at the library and take the readings out of the abstract realm of anthologization.
NEH-sponsored “Cultural History of Digital Technology” Project
While my students’ experience of SF is enriched by the historical materiality of our readings, City Tech’s faculty, who are engaged in pedagogical planning that bridges STEM and the humanities, share some of the same needs as my students. I have learned that my STEM-focused colleagues are experts in their fields, but many do not conceptualize SF on one level as a literary genre that addresses Gernsback’s tripartite definition: romance, scientific facts, and prophetic vision, or on another level as a literary form built on interdisciplinary STEM methodologies (i.e., building assemblages of ideas and constructing extrapolations) and focused on the effects of science and technology on humanity and vice versa (e.g., Asimov’s concept of “social science fiction” or Philip K. Dick’s epistemological and ontological adventures). Professor Anne Leonhardt of Architectural Technology and director of the NEH-funded project titled, “The Cultural History of Digital Technology: Postulating a Humanities Approach to STEM,” asked me to join and contribute my humanities-focused perspective. The project’s goal is to create six interdisciplinary pedagogical modules—on maps, fractals, robotics and sociality, geotagging, topology, and finally, robotics and the workplace. We do this by inviting speakers, holding reading groups, and participating in pedagogical workshops. The student-facing modules will integrate readings, classroom lecture and demonstration, and a hands-on activity. Initially, I helped with finding readings for two modules—fractals and topology, but as I describe below, I have leveraged the City Tech Science Fiction Collection’s magazine holdings and demonstrated that humanities folks can do more than find interesting readings. Also, I will use Gernsback’s definition as a measure of each considered story’s usefulness to the module’s goals.
The first module that I contributed readings to is called “Fractals: Patterning, Fabrication, and the Materiality of Thinking.” Its purpose is to bridge students’ understanding of mathematics to the natural world by using fractal geometry—the notion that Benoit Mandelbrot introduced as the process and principle of order and structure underlying the physical world. We teach students the underlying principles of fractal geometry, help them create a workflow using open-source tools to generate a 3D printable STL, or STereoLithography model, and finally, have them print their model using one of City Tech’s powder or plastic 3D printers.
Initially, I did not consider the City Tech Science Fiction Collection’s holdings, because everything was sitting in 160 boxes stacked floor to ceiling in my office and my former colleague, Alan Lovegreen’s office. Rudy Rucker’s “As Above, So Below” (1989), a story not widely anthologized but available on the author’s website, first came to mind, because I knew that both sides of his professional work touched on this topic. Rucker, a cyberpunk SF writer and mathematician, had written this story after his own attempts at discovering what is now called a “Mandelbulb,” or a three-dimensional plot of the Mandelbrot set, the recognizable image based on a simple iterative function explored in the work of Benoit Mandelbrot. In Rucker’s story, a mathematican hacks together a program that creates a three-dimensional Mandelbrot set that breaks out of his computer screen and takes him on a trippy voyage away from life and into a crabmeat can in his pantry where he can code and enjoy energy drinks for the rest of his life—as long as no one get hungry for canned crab. While it is an interesting story and Rucker’s work on the Mandelbulb is noted in the module, his story is more romantic and possibly prophetic, but less instructive.
Shortly thereafter, Alan and I finished moving and shelving the City Tech SF Collection, and I began searching for a better story in the collection’s magazines—a story that fulfills the Gernsbackian requirements and connects to both of the module’s topics: fractals and 3D printing. One such contender was Robert Heinlein’s “Waldo,” which tended to capture the materiality-emphasis of the module better than Rucker’s much later story. Published in August 1942 in Astounding Science Fiction as by Heinlein’s pseudonym Anson MacDonald, “Waldo” features on the cover with art by Hubert Rogers and story illustration by Paul Orban. The story is where the term for a remote manipulator system is coined—a waldo. However, the story is about a man named Waldo Jones who invents remote manipulators to enable his weakened body to act on the world. With his invention, he sets out to make smaller ones and smaller ones until they were capable of manipulating microscopic neural tissue and investigate the cause of his physical handicap. The idea then is that waldoes could be used to build up matter in the same way they were used to build smaller versions of themselves. Heinlein’s story fulfills Gernsback’s requirements—romance (intrigue and revenge), scientific fact (cybernetics), and prophetic vision (what possibilities might waldoes enable), but it does not fulfill both module topics as strongly.
Eventually, I found the story that is credited as the first SF describing 3D printing in detail: Eric Frank Russell’s “Hobbyist,” in the September 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Unlike “Waldo,” “Hobbyist” is not as widely anthologized, so having access to it in its original magazine was a bonus. If you are familiar with the contemporary video game, No Man’s Sky, then you have an idea about what “Hobbyist” is generally about. Astronaut Steve Ander and his companion parrot Laura crash land on a distant world and are in need of nickel-thorium alloy for fuel, which will hopefully get them a little closer to home. While scavenging around the crash site, Ander notices unsettling patterns of repetition in the world around him and discovers a structure that houses what amounts to a collection of life forms created in a 3D printer of sorts and maintained by an omnipotent being. The narrator describes it thus:
It was done by electroponics, atom fed to atom like brick after brick to build a house. It wasn’t synthesis because that’s only assembly, and this was assembly plus growth in response to unknown laws. In each of these machines, he knew, was some key or code or cipher, some weird master-control of unimaginable complexity, determining the patterns each was building—and the patterns were infinitely variable. (Russell 56)
“Hobbyist” satisfied the Gernsbackian requirements—romance (escape the planet), scientific fact (small scale engineering, iterative and fractal growth), and prophetic vision (might this technology make us gods?) and united both module topics. Capturing “Hobbyist” with my iPhone and Scanner Pro app, I shared the story with the other NEH Fellows— the story’s text and in-story illustrations by Edd Cartier and cover art by Alejandro de Cañedo. During meetings, I related the history of the magazine and how that adds to the importance of the story as a nodal point of STEM ideas expressed through SF long before 3D printing was first innovated in the 1980s, and even before it was described in theoretical terms by Richard Feynman in his well-known December 1959 American Physical Society presentation, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.”
The second module that I contributed to is called “Topology: Behind Escher’s Wizardry, A Look at the Development of Modeling and Fabrication.” Unlike the earlier fractal module, the topology module would involve programming to create each student’s 3D printed model. In addition to my role as the humanist on the team, I made this a personal challenge to relearn Wolfram Mathematica, a symbolic computation program that supports a relatively easy-to-use programming language, because I wanted to demonstrate how its could satisfy all aspects of teaching, coding, and modeling. I began by creating a Mathematica workbook that demonstrated topology concepts, such as points, lines, polygons, and dimensionality, and easy-to-follow programming tutorials of topological surfaces. Additionally, I showed how Mathematica exported 3D printable STL files of the topological models students would create.
Initially, we considered Edwin Abbott’s Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884), but Professor Satyanand Singh, a colleague in the Mathematics department, suggested that we show a video based on Abbott’s story instead. This created an opportunity.
While performing serious play with Mathematica, I recalled Robert Heinlein’s “—And He Built a Crooked House” from the February 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Featuring cover art by Hubert Rogers and story illustrations by Charles Schneeman, the story is about an ambitious architect who designs a house in the shape of an unfolded tesseract, or a four-dimensional cube. Unfolded means to create a geometric net or the interconnected, component elements of the object. For example, a three-dimensional cube unfolds into a net composed of two-dimensional squares arranged in eleven different configurations. On the other hand, a tesseract, which is four-dimensional, unfolds into a net of connected three-dimensional cubes with 168 possible configurations! The architect’s innovative design is such an arrangement of three-dimensional cubes, which in this case, resembles the Cross of St. Peter. Unfortunately, having been built in California, there is an earthquake and the house collapses into itself forming a nondescript house-like cube. The incredulous architect and his nonplussed clients enter the domicile to investigate and become trapped within the structure’s weird, higher-dimensional geometry. It is an improbable story, but it captures the strangeness of higher dimensions and introduces topics for discussion. “—And He Built a Crooked House” fulfills Gernsback’s definition—romance (escape the counter-intuitive house-turned-maze), scientific fact (higher dimensionality), and prophetic vision (let’s use math to build innovative buildings), and it tangentially fulfills the module’s focus on topology.
The NEH project is on going, so there are opportunities to locate other stories and materials in the SF magazines held in the City Tech Science Fiction Collection. In my SF class, I hope to bring my students to the archives for special projects pre-arranged with the librarians. Professor Jill Belli is doing this now, and some of her students’ work will be features in a special session of the upcoming Symposium on Amazing Stories: Inspiration, Learning, and Adventure in Science Fiction on November 29 at City Tech, which I hope that you all will consider presenting or attending. Thank you for listening.
Gernsback, Hugo. “A New Sort of Magazine.” Amazing Stories April 1926: 3.
Heinlein, Robert. “—And He Built a Crooked House. Astounding Science Fiction, February 1941, 68-83.
Russell, Eric Frank. “Hobbyist.” Astounding Science Fiction, September 1947. 33-61
The Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA) held its forty-sixth annual conference on June 25-28, 2015 at Stony Brook University in the Charles B. Wang Center. Our theme this year was, “The SF We Don’t (Usually) See: Suppressed Histories, Liminal Voices, Emerging Media.”
As I detailed in a previous blog post, I presented on the SF that we don’t see (any more) on the Apple Macintosh computing platform and Voyager’s Expanded Books of the early-1990s.
Other voices that stood out in my conference-going experience included keynotes by Vandana Singh on Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Tho Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” and climate change, and M. Asli Dukan on “the white fantastic imagination” and “the invisible universe.” Jessica FitzPatrick and Steven Mollmann presented on postcolonial superheroes and SF. Lisa Yaszek, Isiah Lavender III, and Gerry Canavan gave excellent presentations on Afrofuturism. Keren Omry, Alan Lovegreen (my colleague from City Tech), and Hugh Charles O’Connell questioned the relationship of capitalism and the future. Alexis Lothian (who tweeted much of the conference with me and others with the #sfra2015 hashtag) gave us a compelling view into “Queer World Building, Digital Media, and Speculative Critical Fandom.”Donald “Mack” Hassler chaired a session on gender with compelling papers by Marleen S. Barr and Rosalyn W. Berne.
Doug Davis gave what I thought was the best presentation of the conference on “The SF We (Usually Don’t Talk About but) Always See, or Can We Use Science Fiction Genre Theory to Read Canonical Literary Texts?: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s “The Displaced Person.” Doug’s co-panelist Brad Reina presented a different tact on approaching eBooks in his paper: “Electronic Literature in The Diamond Age: Neal Stephenson and the Present and Future of eBooks.” I learned a lot (and took a lot of pictures of slides/names) in the China SF session on Saturday afternoon featuring interesting papers by Hua Li, Cara Healy, Quiong Yang, and Nathaniel Isaacson.
The SFRA Awards Banquet on Saturday night ended what I consider to be a very successful conference. While some of us encountered challenges to reaching Stony Brook on Long Island (the Long Island Rail Road, Newark/JFK/La Guardia Airports, ferries, car rentals, traffic problems), I think that sharing of ideas and the valuable conversations made the difficulties recede far into the background. The warmth of the camaraderie and the welcoming inclusivity at SFRA overcomes any hurdle. Additionally, Stony Brook–a sprawling campus surrounded by trees and populated by bunny rabbits–has a surprisingly science fictional side in some of its buildings’ architectures, including the Charles Wang Center (pictured above) and the Stony Brook University Hospital (pictured below).
After the conference was over, I caught a ride back to Brooklyn with Mack and Sue Hassler and Adam Frisch. We had lunch together after Y joined us at Wilma Jean’s Restaurant. We all squeezed back into the rental car, dropped Adam off at the airport to fly back to Sioux City, and then, Mack, Sue, Y, and I drove to Coney Island to enjoy walking along the boardwalk and sharing each other’s company.
Next year, we will cross the Atlantic Ocean for the forty-seventh conference and meet to discuss “Systems and Knowledge.” Forming a joint event with the Current Research in Speculative Fictions at the University of Liverpool, we will meet on June 27-30, 2016 in Liverpool, England. For me, it will be like going home, and I can’t wait!
This is the thirty-fifth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.
This example of Recovered Writing is an essay that I wrote for the 2010 Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA) Conference in Arizona. I delivered the paper on June 26, 2010 on a panel moderated by my dissertation advisor Donald “Mack” Hassler and with my wife Yufang Lin (who presented a paper evaluating Avatar in terms of postcolonial theory). I wrote about our experience at the Arizona conference here.
This paper is one that I had hoped to return to and publish on, but I can’t figure when I could do it at this point. So, I offer it to you to read and think about.
James Cameron’s Avatar and the Machine in the Garden: Reading Movie Narratives and Practices of Production
Jason W. Ellis
In an earlier essay, I argued that Cold War autonomous technologies and fictional robots replace humanity in the so-called American garden, the idyllic pastoral imaginative space that continues to carry a hold over the American imagination according to the respective work of Leo Marx and Sharona Ben-Tov. At that time, I could not find a work or example counter to the paradox presented by Marx and Ben-Tov, which is that in choosing to embrace technology and industrialization over agrarianism at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we, meaning Americans, have continued to move further away from that ideal while retaining a trace of affection for it. Furthermore, Ben-Tov demonstrates that we continually try to return to the garden through technological means, which paradoxically keeps us away from the garden. For Marx and Ben-Tov the emphasis is placed on the narrative itself–the stories about the intrusion of the machine into the garden. I, on the other hand, believe that it is equally important, to consider the confluence of story and the production of that story, and the way those two things relate to the emblematic machine in the garden. I argue that Avatar, on the level of narrative, re-inscribes and challenges the concept of the machine in the garden. The humans and their machines invade Pandora’s idyllic garden as part of an imperialistic expansion of capitalistic rapaciousness. The tranquility of the pastoral scene is disturbed and broken by the technological ends of industrialization. Concurrent with this narrative, Cameron presents an alternative in which Pandora complicates what Marx calls the “pastoral ideal,” which he locates “in a middle ground somewhere ‘between,’ yet in a transcendent relation to, the opposing forces of civilization and nature” (23). Pandora is those things, an in-between space, but it is also, as I will show, a fusion of the pastoral and the technological into a third way, a techno-ecological possibility for hope in a sustainable world–something we are far from achieving on Earth. Despite these possibilities, I will conclude by arguing that the practices of making this film, the techno-scientific methods and practices of contemporary science fiction filmmaking undermines, in part, Cameron’s best intentions to run counter to internalized narrative constraints.
To begin, Leo Marx writes that “The pastoral ideal has been used to define the meaning of America ever since the age of discovery, and its has not yet lost its hold upon the native imagination” (3). This is true still today and it is re-established in Avatar. Cameron himself says in an interview that the film has “a garden theme with teeth and claws” (“Avatar: Making a Scene”). Jake Sully, a warrior from the human “Jarhead clan” or Marines, guides the audience through the film’s fictional world with the aid of his sense of wonder fueled by his bodily escape from the confines of a wheelchaired existence. Through Jake’s exploration in his remotely controlled, Na’vi-human spliced avatar, his remote controlled organic embodiment, we discover that Pandora is a lush environment, and its flora and fauna share many similarities to life on planet Earth while having significant “cognitively estranging” differences such as extra appendages, exotic colors, bioluminescence, etc. Furthermore, the life on Pandora is unified through its rhizomic network of plant and animal life that either connects into what the Na’vi call their goddess, Eywa (call this an established or emergent deity as you will), a world totalizing essence that enables what I call a dynamic homeostasis. Pandora, prior to humanity’s arrival, seems to be idyllic and senrene, life going about doing what it does, the Na’vi living and dying, creating stories and myths, living their lives through their own social reality as they saw best while acknowledging the significance of the greater world: the planet itself, of which they are each contributors, collaborators, and codependents. They live off the land, and the land sustains itself on the practices shared by the Na’vi and apparently all life on Pandora.
Then, the humans arrive on Pandora and the story re-establishes the American myth of remembering the idyllic garden while encroaching on that garden with the technological artifacts of industrialization. Delivered by interplanetary starships, the humans set to work strip mining Pandora of what ultimately becomes the unobtainable precious element, named with slight tongue in cheek, Unobtainium. The humans demarcate their space from the surrounding idyllic garden of Pandora, only going out to take the minerals so desperately sought to assuage the troubled economy back on Earth while occasionally attempting to negotiate with the native Na’vi inhabitants for the so-called “rights” to mine the Unobtainium beneath Hometree, the megalithic old-growth tree that is home to the Omaticaya clan. The corporate-led humans and their military goons go out in heavy machinery that literally rips, burns, and blows-up the Pandoran jungle and sacred sites on their way to Hometree. These machines rupture the natural world orchestrated by the goddess Eywa. This is not to say that the natural environment is not valued in some way. The corporation is concerned about its image back on Earth. The corporate fear is that by killing human-like lifeforms will make the company look bad, which will, in turn, effect the bottom line and the stock price. Corporate conscience is thus dependent on perception back home rather than any moral or ethical compass. The Unobtainium must be obtained at almost any cost.
Jake Sully, to be sure, is an interesting hybrid character in the film. He is our guide to this eruption of human machines in the Pandoran garden. He learns the circuits of the human conquest while discovering the circuits of life on Pandora. Jake’s hybrid or cyborg existence bridges the human and Na’vi divide. However, he is, with his avatar, another technological machine entering the garden. As a Harawayan cyborg, he does represent the possibility of emancipation of historical modes of domination through technology, but it is also the case that his avatar is as much a symptom as a cure to the machine intrusion into the garden.
Regardless of Jake’s problematic status as imperialist and appropriator of the Na’vi’s myths, he also represents the audience’s admission to an alternative possibility, not in opposition, but in resolution of the nature-technological divide. I contend that Jake and Pandora itself are hybrids that achieve this resolution. His avatar brings him closer to the nature of Pandora, but it is initially only through the apparatus of the avatar remote control technology that he can step away from humanity into the interconnected real and social worlds of the Na’vi. Human technology allows him to see the possibility of love and connection on the other side of the divide, but it is the Pandoran technology-like organicism, that allows Jake to transcend his human body and its technological assemblages to cross the divide in the final scene to become fully Jake of the Omaticaya people. The queue, which the Na’vi and seemingly all other animal life on Pandora appear to have, is a braid of neural tissue that facilitates a link between minds, to the goddess, and to the planet. It is an organic version of the jack from The Matrix. Besides living as one with the planet, the queue and the rhizomic network of plant life on Pandora, enables a kind of sharing–of emotions, memories, and relationships–that leads to cooperation, not domination
Cameron’s Pandoran fusion of the natural world and the network into an organic vision of sustainability and cooperation between life and planet challenges the pastoral ideal described by Marx. It taps into the artificial division of objects and subjects in modernity described by Latour. It is a different way of thinking about hybrids and cyborgs. Everything about Pandora concerns the proliferating hybrids of Latour. Under the surface of the first human-centric narrative, which divides the world artificially into objects and subjects, the Pandora narrative reveals how these things are blurred. The organic network brings together the Na’vi with the rest of the life on their planet. The social intermixes with the natural, and vice versa. And, all of this is accomplished through the network, or what the Na’vi consider Eywa. Eywa is a planetwide cyborg and a system of social relationships in which the social extends beyond the Na’vi. Haraway insists “that social relationships include nonhumans as well as humans as socially . . . active partners. All that is unhuman is not un-kind, outside kinship, outside the orders of signification, excluded from trading in signs and wonders” (8). Eywa and the life of Pandora are inextricably intertwined in an unimaginably complex social relationship, and they “trade in signs and wonder” on a daily basis, but most visually evident in the rearguard response by Pandora at the film’s conclusion. It is, from the human perspective, the hybrid and socially interconnected features of Pandora that represent a third way, a different and revitalizing possibility for life beyond industrialized exploitation of the land and people.
For these reasons, Avatar is a science fiction film that challenges the theories of Marx and Ben-Tov. The narrative of the Na’vi and their planet Pandora demonstrates a hybrid possibility for nature and the social. However we may want to conjecture how Pandora came to be the way it is, the bottom line is that it exhibits the characteristics of the things that have in the past been purified as object or subject. Furthermore, Ben-Tov, building her own theory of the artificial paradise, says, “Unlike the texts that Marx surveys . . . science fiction does not try to temper hopefulness with history” (9). Avatar does revert to the sense of hopefulness that Marx describes in relation to the desire for the mythical idyllic garden and American pastoralism. But, as I said above, the film provides an alternative to Marx’s machine in the garden narrative. Yes, it is tempered with hope, but it is hope in new way that fuses the pastoral with technology and the social with nature. Avatar, as a result of its hybrid embedded narrative, is a counter example to what Ben-Tov characterizes as science fiction’s attempt “to create immunity from history,” which “reveals a curious dynamic: the greater our yearning for a return to the garden, the more we invest in technology as the purveyor of the unconstrained existence that we associate with the garden. Science fiction’s national mode of thinking boils down to a paradox: the American imagination seeks to replace nature with a technological, man-made world in order to return to the garden of American nature” (9). The Na’vi/Pandora-centric narrative challenges this mode of thinking. Pandora represents a natural world that also enjoys and makes use of abilities that we would otherwise characterize as technological in nature. Homeostasis, networks, and dynamic load balancing are all technical concepts on Earth, but they are developed and put to use in the natural world of the imaginative Pandora. Avatar draws back from what Ben-Tov sees as the replacement of nature with technology. Instead, it is the hybridization of these two artificially separate things. Or, is it?
The curious thing about Avatar is how immersive the experience can be. I saw it three times: once on IMAX 3D and twice on RealD digital projection. Each time that I watched the film, I found myself falling into the experience and its world, but I could not avoid thinking about how Avatar’s seemingly natural environment was made. Cameron took green screen and computer generated imagery (CGI) to all new levels. He effectively schooled George Lucas about how to populate an entirely artificial environment with believable, human-like alien characters. Cameron himself said in an interview, “it was exciting when we rounded that corner and we knew we had true human emotion captured and performed by nonhuman characters” (“Avatar: Making a Scene”). The keyword here is captured, and he goes on to use the word preserve. Using state-of-the-art computer and film technology, much of which he and his subsidiary companies produced, Cameron captures, preserves, and transforms a performance into something radically new. He takes the behaviors, actions, facial expressions, and voices of real people, acting in what is called a “spatial volume,” or a space demarcated as corresponding with some place on Pandora but existing in our world, and stores, manipulates, and creates new imagery and actions that look real but not of this world. A specific example would be the development of the banshee flight scenes. Within the spatial volume, he moves toy-sized banshees through their flight paths, the actors perform on gimbals their flights synced to the flight paths, cameras record the movements and facial expressions of the actors for computer translation, and then finally, Cameron walks through the spatial volume alone with a virtual camera, an Apple iPad sized device that acts as a window into the virtual Pandora environment all around him, to record the scenes he wants for the film. These methods, all reliant on technology, re-inscribe the machine in the garden, or film tech into virtual Pandora. If the Pandora-centric narrative is the garden, despite its elegant resolution of the nature/social and pastoral/machine dialectics, then the way in which Pandora is developed within the memory banks of computers and rendering farms is the re-introduction of the machine into the idyllic pastoral environment. Ben-Tov may not be entirely correct about the way in which science fiction narratives, the subject of her work, represent our inability to restore the pastoral through technology, but she is definitely correct when we step back and consider the way in which an inventive pastoral science fiction narrative is constructed with technology for mass consumption. What this means is that we also need to consider the means of production of science fiction in various media, along with their stories, because the practices and methods of creating science fiction are themselves becoming more science fictional. The meta-narrative of making science fiction is a largely neglected aspect of meaning making that I believe will attract more critical attention as virtuality becomes more established in film production. It may one day be all that we have left when actors perform, in effect, under erasure, and the filmic simulations proliferate.
“Avatar: Making a Scene.” Fox Movie Channel. Hulu. Web. 21 April 2010. Online Video.
Ben-Tov, Sharona. The Artificial Paradise: Science Fiction and American Reality. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. Print.
Cameron, James, writer and dir. Avatar. 20th Century Fox, 2009. Film.
This is the thirty-first post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.
In this Recovered Writing post, I am bringing my analog writing into the digital realm of cyberspace by scanning the pages of my notebook from the First International Philip K. Dick Conference, Dortmund into a PDF. Instead of copy-and-pasting my writing as I have done on my previous Recovered Writing posts, this one has be downloaded as a PDF below.
In addition to my record of all of the sessions and keynote speeches, you can observe my degrading handwriting (I’m so far removed from my days as a draftsman-in-training or as a high school student receiving commendations for his penmanship), trouble with spelling jargon and names, and rough sketches of Laurence Rickels’ theatrically performative keynote presentation.
I was so busy during the last bit of 2012 and all of 2013 that I never returned to collect my thoughts from the Dortmund conference in a blog post. This wasn’t because I thought it wasn’t important. In fact, it was tremendously important and enlightening to me. In my 2012 retrospective post, I wrote, “November 15-18: I attended the first international Philip K. Dick conference at UT-Dortmund in Dortmund, Germany. I delivered a heavily revised version of my SFRA 2012 paper, “Philip K. Dick as Pioneer of the Brain Revolution.” The conference was a fantastic experience. I promise to write more about this in a separate post. In the meantime, you can see my pictures from Germany here.” Unfortunately, the demands of teaching, research, and job hunting took precedence over my desire to “write more about [the conference] in a separate post.” It will have to suffice for now to post these notes for any and all who have the time and ability to decipher my scribblings. If you are so inclined, good luck!